Treasure 3

Jenny’s immediate instinct was to shrink back into the shadows. Any of these men or women could be city council, or some other less-organized gang.

But she’d given one of her wings to Calvin, who, amazingly, was already frantically waving to someone in the crowd. Chivalry-induced clearheadedness could only get one so far.

The silence of the square broke somewhat as a white-bearded man conferred briefly with a flight-suited woman, then strode towards them with remarkable agility. People returned to their crafts, passing tools to each other, tightening and testing and chattering. Jenny checked her list of drinkers and remembered Calvin had a father.

“I’m surprised to see you here,” Adam McConnell said, his goggles glinting accusitorily. “You never quite had the inclination for…”

“I’m glad we ran into you!” Jenny cut in, taking over the conversation before Calvin’s crestfallen look could turn into something darker. “I’m trying to get these wings back home to Dr. Griffin’s lab. Think I can do that without them getting me into any more trouble?”

Adam scratched his beard and gazed down the cliff before answering. Her uncle’s lab was near the lowest point of the plateau that held the town, and there were many tight alleyways and sharp drops between it and the square.

The crystal square itself was a wide open space with several rolling terraces, bounded by tightly gathered fences and shack walls. People in Rust Town didn’t agree on much, but one thing they all took as law was that no permanent structure was to be built within a certain distance around the crystal–so all could see it at all times. As a result, the place was a mess of half-erected trinket stalls, the remnants of campsites, and of course, skycraft.

“You picked a bad time to be out here,” he said at last. “Take the north path. Only one direction they can come at you. You won’t be home any faster than that.”

Helpful, Jenny thought, but nodded. Before dragging the wings away, she took the time to look Calvin in the eye.

“Thanks for helping me out,” she said. “I don’t think I could have got them down Dusk alone. Dr. Griffin says thank you as well.”

“I…um…” In the presence of his father, Calvin had begun stammering most of his sentences. But he gave her a smile, awkwardly large, and dropped the wing at her feet.

She picked it up. Immediately, her shoulders groaned under the double burden she was demanding from each one. She told them to shut up, and started to drag them around the clear channel at the edge of the square.

Before the change rippled through the crowd, Jenny had time to look once more at the gigantic exposed face of the blue crystal, and to wonder once more about the usually ignored question of how it had gotten there.

Then she heard the piercing voice.

“Right! Nobody move, now. We’ve already taken the square, so let’s all sit tight and wait for the glow.”

A hubbub erupted among the planes. The people in the crowd went for their weapons at once, drawing swords, javelins, crossbows.

Jenny searched frantically for a place to hide the wings–no good. Every spot was occupied by a human or a plane. There must have been three or four hundred of each out here.

She dropped the wings flat and stood over them, hoping to muddle the sight in the darkness.

The crowd scanned the entrances to the square. Jenny held her breath. She wasn’t so worried about whatever bandit had decided to lay a sole claim to the treasure of the Sphere this week, but she was worried about their timing. They hadn’t shown themselves. If people started turning on each other, the square could turn into a bloodbath.

If that happened, she’d have to abandon the wings. Dr. Griffin would be crushed. But he would rather she come back.

Adam McConnell took the lead. “Show yourself!” he barked, manhandling a massive greatsword off his back. “Around here we look people in the eyes when we steal from them.”

“How can I steal what isn’t your property?” the mocking voice floated back. “The Sphere’s always belonged to the City Council. It’s in a bank the sky until we claim it.”

A shadow appeared on the rooftop, and immediately became the target of several dozen crossbows and at least one pair of throwing axes. It didn’t appear fazed.

“You’re confident for folks without airplanes,” Adam shot back.

“With reason. While folks wasted your time tinkering with gliders, we came up with something else.”

Other shadows were popping up now, chortling in a really annoying way. One guffaw sounded from right behind Jenny’s ear. She spun, falling to the ground to defend the wings, and saw a stumpy shadow on a tin roof, some kind of cylinder clamped in its hand.

Jenny’s blood ran cold. She recognized that shape: Finn, the city council’s resident do-nothing. And it didn’t take an engineer to realize those cylinders were the reason the gang was feeling so peppy.

Calvin’s father had arrived at the same conclusion. He glanced at his wife, Stacey, to check that she’d sheathed the throwing axes.

“These pack as much force as any fifty of you’ll generate falling out of the sky. So it’s best you take my advice, sit, and listen.

Jenny recognized the shadow now: it was the man who’d lurked outside of Rose’s infirmary. She remembered his name–Aiden.

Finn snickered down at her. One time he’d shoved Jenny into a mud puddle to get the last gourd at one of the covered markets. He really was unpleasant.

Aiden held his bomb aloft. “Here’s the plan. When the glow happens, you all are going to take off, as normal. Or boom. You’ll get to the sphere, loot as much treasure as you can carry, come back, and give us…let’s say all of it. Or boom. And if you try to land anywhere else…”

Despite him talking from a rooftop, Finn’s voice somehow sounded right beside Jenny’s ear. “…for you, I think we’ll blow up your crazy uncle’s workshop. Not like anybody would miss him. Boom.”

“I’m not going to the sphere at all if you don’t let me take these wings home,” Jenny snapped.

The wings, she thought suddenly. They’d been a drag on her all the way through town. But they were all she had.

What if they could save her? Or save everyone?

The full moon rose high over the rooftops of Rust, high behind Finn’s odious form. And Jenny had an idea.

Staying prone atop the wings, she caught a ray of moonlight on the tip of one, and began to angle it toward the face of the crystal.

At last, she had it where she wanted. But her heart was pounding in her throat. The square had settled into an awkward silence, Aiden or one of the others shouting whenever any whispering got too loud.

Jenny had been bold at Rose’s shop, with her not-aunt there to protect her. But this was bigger. She could be endangering Calvin, his family, everyone else she might know in this crowd.

But not acting would endanger them even more.

“Look!” she shouted. “Look at the crystal! The glow is here!”

The square erupted. Her signal rippled through the crowd. Ropes released, propellors whirred to life, landing gear detached, while Aiden bellowed for order.

Jenny would have laughed if everyone hadn’t been in so much danger. The city council had no idea what they’d tried to put on a leash.

Then the expected happened. As quickly as they’d leapt into action, people began to mutter. Those who had seen a glow before told those who hadn’t that it didn’t look right this time. The crystal should have been a lot bluer if it was announcing the arrival of the sphere.

Jenny leapt to her feet, clutching one wing.

“Are you serious?” Finn sneered. “You don’t really expect us to believe–”

She swung the wing at him.

The rooftops of Rust were all pretty low, the better to reach the airstrips quickly. She wasn’t tall, but could easily reach Finn with the length of the wing–and while they weren’t the heaviest, they packed enough momentum to unseat the city council bastard.

Finn yelped. Stumbled. The crowd behind devolved into confusion as people tried to silence their wound propellors.

Bulbous Finn collapsed to the ground. The wing fell on top of him. Jenny let go of it and caught the falling explosive canister in one smooth motion. Then she sprang to the top of a barrel, and from there to the roof.

“Aiden!” she cried out. “We gotta have another talk.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Interlude 1

Hi, readers! This is the first installment of seven that I plan to publish as a reward for my Patreon reaching its second-tier goal of $150 a month. The next goal, at $300 a month, includes e-book editions for Kindle and other e-readers, doubtless with some awesome new bonus content and Grace’s trademark illustrations. If you can spare $1 a month to support my project, please give the page a look!

Recovered from the Sea Chest at North Crescent Inlet, Third Year of the Far Moon Ascendent

(This paper is assembled from multiple different scraps, and there is some dispute over the correct arrangement, due to legibility issues in the handwriting. The reader is encouraged to peruse the record skeptically.)

 

Race 1: Karla’s boat wins first across the reservoir. Kio’s boat wins second.

Prize: Karla gets to wash clothes today, while Kio has to clean and pluck the gull we just caught with Karla’s awesome new spear-throw-o-matic.

Kio would like to note that Karla cheated by using a non-approved design.

There were no approved designs until you lost, dummy. Besides, it was your idea to divide up chores this way. Why do you always suggest boat races when you lose every time?

Because one day I’m not gonna lose! Why are you still writing this stuff on the scorecard instead of talking to my face?

(Illustration of a face sticking its tongue out)

 

Race 2: Karla’s boat wins first across the reservoir. Kio’s boat wins second.

Prize: The extra wager of cable-suspended aqueduct cleaning also goes to Kio. Karla gets to hold the winch.

 

Another thing: why do you add that I came second? Who else are we racing against?

Because if I mark that, it means your boat made it. If one of them sinks, it doesn’t get to place, get it?

Your big paper bathtubs will NEVER be superior to a fully-rigged sail plan I will keep doing crappy chores until I PROVE it

Dude, your sail plan keeps falling over because it’s covered in too much string

 

Race 3: Karla’s boat wins first across the reservoir. See? This means you sunk and (scratched out)

 

Race 4: Karla’s boat capsizes. Kio’s boat capsizes and sinks.

 

Wow. It got really windy right before Race 4.

I know, dang it. But mine didn’t sink, so I still won!

Now who’s making up rules?

 

Race 5: Kio’s boat wins first across the reservoir. Karla’s boat wins second.

Prize: Let the record show that Kio doesn’t even care about doing all the gross chores, because his Middle Toral Empire Square-Sailed Full-Rigging Plan WON THE RACE and let the record further show that Karla can suck it.

 

Race 6: Karla’s boat runs aground on the forward side of the reservoir. Kio’s boat is attacked by a seagull and fails to finish.

 

I truly have no idea how a piece of that delicious mushroom got into your Tortoise Empire Square-Rigged Losermobile.

You’re a monster.

 

Race 7: Both boats reach the edge of the reservoir safely.

 

You’re not gonna write who won?

What’s the point? You’re already on chores for like twelve years.

Then why did we do a seventh race anyway?

Because it’s fun! That’s why we’re still writing notes to each other on the scorecard. Talking’s not exactly hard. Neither is divvying chores with that other game you read about.

Rock Paper Sword? That’s boring.

Exactly.

 

(Later, in a different hand)

Besides, if we don’t make it off, don’t you want somebody someday to know we did this?

Treasure 2

All right, Jenny, she thought when she was safely out of sight, in the shadows around the bend. Rust Town map, just like Uncle Griff made you memorize. And…go.

A schematic she’d been drawing up all week materialized in her head instead, and she nearly dropped the wings so she could sketch out an idea in the air with her hands.

Dang it, focus. She pushed several strands of brown hair under her knit hat. The map of streets was so boring: no order, no system, just a bunch of hovels plunked down wherever looked flat. The streets themselves barely deserved the name. Jenny had never seen a path that wasn’t made of mud or grass, certainly none of the big flagstones she’d heard covered roads in the capital, all those miles away over the sea.

Nah, Rust Town was fine. But it wasn’t fascinating like an automaton, or beautiful like these wings.

She was on a path far different from the one she’d taken to Rose’s door. Even so, she managed to pull her location out of the black hole in her mind. Rose’s hospital was one of several wide-mouthed mountain caverns with walls of wood and corrugated iron built over the entrances. The others, a long arc of rooms large and small that followed the arc of the great Dawn Cliff, were mostly workshops, with some whiskey halls. Every other building in town was a workshop, and half of those remaining were taverns.

The Dawn Cliff, Jenny knew, ran from due east to due north. It was a child’s rhyme taught to everyone unfortunate enough to have been born here. Given Dr. Griffin’s shack was downslope to the southeast, she could find her way back no problem.

Assuming, of course, nobody took an interest in her brand new and entirely useless pair of wings.

She dragged them down a slope that curved past where the cave mouths opened up. Some ramshackle huts opened their doors onto the path, from behind barricades of stacked cinderblocks that walled off little plots of carrots and potatoes. Jenny could see flickering forge fires through the gaps in the walls.

The sound of metal sawing wood rang out from above her head. She jerked into a fighing stance between the two wings. But pausing for breath and a look revealed it was only a suspended hut, a way of living alongside the cliff face where you didn’t have to watch your back so much.

A network of struts held the hut aloft, placed as randomly as the web of a caffeinated spider. A knotted rope was the only way in. As Jenny repositioned the wings, two dirty faces poked out, followed by a third, taller and cleaner. Jenny hadn’t known they lived here, but she waved happily up at them anyway.

“Jenny Griffin?” asked the woman looking down at her from above the two boys. “What are you doing out here this time of night?”

“Running home.” She gestured to the wings by way of explanation.

The Carpenter Twins, and their mother Jada, were renowned for providing the best wood for skycraft frames. Nobody knew their real names. People came from all over town to barter for their struts and propellors, and most of them overlooked the fact that two of the three carpenters were nine-year-old boys.

“Whoa.” Guy or Dan Carpenter lifted his sawdust-proof goggles to get a better look. “That’s so cool.”

“For metal, anyway,” his brother Dan or Guy said dismissively.

“Oh. Erm.” Jada covered her mouth, but was making a spectacular effort to look impressed with her eyes. “Dr. Griffin’s certainly designed another…unique creation.”

Jenny momentarily forgot she was in danger of grievous bodily harm from the city council. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“He’s gonna crash again!” Dan or Guy exclaimed.

“Dan, shut up!” yelled Definitely Guy At This Point.

“Jenny, if you continue along this path, you’re one left turn away from Dusk Street,” Jada said apologetically, yanking both twins away from the window by their belts. “You can take that to the Square or wherever you need to go.”

“I know where it goes,” Jenny called up, not feeling too charitable toward anyone in the Carpenter family at the moment. “Thanks.”

“Take care of yourself–Guy! No! That’s an off-limits hammer!”

The lofthouse’s curtain dropped over the window as Jenny dragged the wings onward.

Around the turn Jada had named, Jenny found herself looking out over a dusk panorama of Rust Town, its alleys and rooftops tight enough to form a firelit blanket over the whole alpine meadow. The old joke went that Rust was built on a slope so the dung could drain into the sea, but she had always found the view from upslope pretty: the red-and-blue canvas covers flapping in the breeze over markets, the whitewashed airstrips sprawling over three or four roofs each, the wooden and tarnished-iron shelters with smoke rising from half a dozen different holes. Rust Town was a curtain of quiet clangs and far-off shouts and rambling engines drifting high up into the sky. Higher than the gulls could fly.

Higher than she ever would too, if she didn’t get these bloody wings home.

Her mental map was filling in its gaps. From Rose’s place and the Crystal Square she triangulated that she was at the boundary of Low Dusk, the region of town inhabited by the people who had given up on trying to fly to the Sphere. It had no airstrips, but filled the extra space with more taverns.

And filled every one of their corners with thieves. In Rust Town, everyone who was really living was living to build the plane that would finally reach the mysterious Sphere, the castle that floated by whenever the crystal glowed. To have given up on that, one usually had to have turned one’s sights on smaller, easier-to-reach riches on the ground.

No, Jenny was not a fan of the idea of carrying her wings through Low Dusk, solid gold or otherwise. But the maze of alleys stood directly between her and her uncle’s workshop.

What she really needed was information. Exactly how dangerous was this part of town tonight? How restless were the natives?

She dragged the wings around another few corners until the alleyways became wider, not to mention piled higher with junk. Jenny found herself stopping every ten steps, teeth gritted, to fit the damn things around a pile of barrels or over a steel girder or down a steep basalt drop-off. At first, she’d thought their weight wasn’t as annoying as their shape. Then she’d thought their shape less annoying than how top-heavy they were, and finally had decided everything about the stupid wings was obnoxious and she wanted to go to bed.

At last she caught wind of the bustle of Dusk Street on the other side of a low wall. That meant she couldn’t be more than twelve paces from an inn. She leaned the wings against a wall that seemed to pump raucous music through the holes in its slats, covered them with an old sheet, and tiptoed around to the front.

Dusk Street wasn’t any less of a dirt path than any other in town, but it was livelier. Women and men danced and staggered back and forth, shouted to each other across the road, sang and argued loudly about drag coefficients. Flickering pools of light splashed across the road, seeping out of the pubs–which tended to be sunk halfway into the street, their roofs and awnings at eye level. Stairways led down. Drunks tried to negotiate them.

And every one of them is probably an aircraft engineer. Jenny remembered the day years ago when Dr. Griffin had told her most people in the world didn’t know how to build planes.

She’d been horrified. How did they live, off in the Toral capital?

A lanky man spilled out of one of the pits, not bothering with the steps. Jenny made a beeline for him. She had a mental catalog of all Rust Town’s biggest drinkers for precisely situations like this.

“Calvin.” She knelt by the man and flicked his face a few times. Wisps of oddly thin hair shifted in a light breeze. “C’mon, wake up. I need some advice.”

“Uh?” Calvin blinked, as though the grass had attacked his cheek and not the other way around. “Jenny? I promise, this looks worse than it is.”

“Wow, it must suck for you then.” She wasn’t tall by any standards, but the ridiculous height differential between her and the reeking Calvin was exactly correct for him to use her as a shelf to gain his feet.

“Is this a situation I might get a free drink out of?” he asked when his eyes indicated the street had stopped spinning.

Jenny snorted. “You think I found the sphere last night and didn’t tell anyone? I don’t have that kind of money. I just need your help to get down this street.”

“Right, that’s obvious, then.” The weight lifted off Jenny’s head. Calvin drew up to his full, imposing height. “I’ve got to escort you.”

She almost sighed, but having anybody by her side would be a help with things as restless as they were. Besides, she had noticed chivalrous duty had a sobering effect on Calvin. He didn’t seem to be swaying as hard, at least, as she led him around to the back of the tavern, and coaxed him to take hold of one of the wings.

He cast a longing glance at the warm, firelit cellar with its open walls and long tables, before Jenny snapped his attention back to the street with a hand on his arm and a question. “What’s the bandit activity like tonight? Are people whispering anything?”

“You mean other than about the glow?” Calvin shifted one of his wings, lurching around so hard a young couple had to let go of each other’s hands to avoid crashing into him. “Because people are pretty sure there’s going to be a glow tonight. The numerologists all reported it and they never agree on anything.”

“Yeah, but like…is anyone planning anything creepy for it? The city council places they wouldn’t usually go, things like that?”

“Dunno. People don’t really tell me that stuff.” Calvin shrugged, nearly losing control of his wing again in the process. “But you know how it is, Jen. You’ve seen what, fifteen since you’ve been here?”

“Seventeen since I’ve been alive,” Jenny corrected, bearing her wing on both shoulders. “And yeah. The Calm Before the Sphere. It’s both better and worse than usual.”

As they left Low Dusk and entered Rust Town proper, this became clearer and clearer. The street widened to the point where it could have functioned as an airstrip–and might have been about to. Jenny had never seen it this empty. The last few glows she recalled had come with much less warning.

The path led between rows of workshops, with chimneys belching forge smoke and clothes hung between unused skycraft hulks to dry. A little girl raced past Jenny and Calvin, chasing a rolling bolt.

Jenny shuddered. That had been her once.

The only sounds from the shacks were clangs and saws, canvas staplings and curt one-word check-ins. Rust could have been asleep under its ocean of roofs. She even thought she could hear the real ocean pounding far below.

Calvin stopped in his tracks and flung out one swaying arm. Jenny nearly walked into it. “Is that…”

Her sobering companion nodded.

Jenny swallowed. “I don’t like their chances.”

The crystal square, with its dark blue rock towering against the mountain wall, opened up before them. Every square inch of its grass was covered with people and planes–the planes sitting silent, wound up, while the people scanned the night sky, straining for any glimpse of the Sphere.

 

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Treasure 1

Jennifer Hunter Griffin slid down the inside of Rose’s shop door and immediately felt her pulse begin to slow. She breathed in the mingling scents of sandalwood and musty lumber and sage insence. Underlying it all was a layer of smoke mixed with the good kind of sweat.

As comforting a smell as you could find in Rust Town, where odors tended to skew less subtle.

She blinked and raised her eyes to the high ceiling of rough stone–a strong, sturdy sight that steadied her even more. Rose looked up from the poultice she was dabbing onto the shoulder of a man who looked quite a bit too small to have been picking fights. She dropped the rag on a table beside the cot and was three racing steps toward the door before she realized who had come through.

“Jenny?” Rose wiped her hands on her apron and tucked a few strands of brown hair back into the cloth tied around her head. “What’s happened to you? If you’re being chased–”

“No!” Jenny forced out between gasps. “There’s no need to get the wrench, Aunt Rose. Go back to your patient.”

Rose arched an eyebrow high enough to lose it behind the bandana. “One, I’m not your aunt. Two, don’t tell me what to do in my own infirmary. And three, I kind of want to get the wrench.”

“I mean–” Jenny peeked at the wooden slat door, with navy-blue night visible around all its edges. She took a few steps into the warm torchlit air of the dirt-floor infirmary. Lanterns hung from brackets riveted into the ceiling of the mountain cave this had once been. Two of the five cots were occupied: one by the brawler, one on the far side of the room, bearing the same feverish old lady it had been last time.

She followed Rose back to the cot, where the healer continued applying the poultice. Her patient thanked her profusely in between gasps of stinging pain.

“It was one of those city council guys,” Jenny confided, lowering her voice. “You know the way they hang around so they can snap up any action they see.”

Rose feigned surprise. “Next you’ll be telling me they’re not the real city council. You shock me, Jennifer.”

“It’s Jenny,” she hissed, hoping the patient wasn’t taking his cues from Rose. Right now, he mostly seemed to be groaning.

Suddenly, however, he spoke up. “I hate those guys. Too damn good to glow like the rest of us. Hanging around to steal our hard-earned treasure when someone finally brings it back.”

“There’s nothing wrong with making a living in Rust Town other ways than flying.” Rose poulticed a particularly sensitive bit of the wound, making the man wince. Jenny snickered. It wasn’t a good idea to offend your healer on the cot, especially if the healer was Rose.

Her smile didn’t last long as she remembered the difficulty of her situation. Apprehension must have showed on her face, as Rose’s look softened.

“If they are outside, that’s not good,” she allowed, “since I assume you’re here for the wings.”

“Ideally,” Jenny murmured, feeling things were shaping up any way but ideal.

“How does that feel?” Rose asked the patient.

“Better.” He grinned. “Yeah, a lot better.”

“Good. You’ll sleep here tonight. In the morning, you should be ready to go.”

Rose turned, wiping her hands clean on a separate rag. She swept through her preparation area–a pot of water she kept at a boil for washing her hands, clean bandages, various jars of plants Jenny couldn’t name–through a door even less substantial than the one in the front. Jenny exhaled. Watching her tall not-aunt, graceful but covered in indescribable stains, had a way of making anything less scary.

Rose returned much more slowly than she’d left, laden with a burden she had to push through the gap with a great deal of grunting and cursing.

Ah, the wings. Jenny’s whole being brightened. She liked the wings.

Her uncle, Dr. Griffin, had forged them bit by bit at the hot anvil run by Kalend & Kalend, the old smiths. He’d insisted on swinging the hammer and working the bellows alongside them. A month later, probably around the time Tom and Seana Kalend were debating how to politely ask him to take a break, he’d entered the smithy under cover of early morning and left with two wings for what would surely be the oddest skycraft Rust had ever seen.

The strangest thing about them was how rigid they were: dozens of slim metal rods fit together in a glittering framework that resembled the child of an eagle’s wing and a spider’s web. She and her uncle would stretch canvas over the frames back at his shack. For now, they were skeletal.

And lighter than they looked, but not quite light enough.

The patient gawked as Jenny shifted empty cots to give Rose space. “How do they flap?”

“Rest,” Rose commanded, and laid the wings down. Jenny tested them. Not so heavy in the moment, but they were big and unwieldy, and she was not big, and twelve years old to boot.

When she next caught Rose’s eye, the healer wore a look of concern. “Why are you here alone?”

Jenny hesitated. “See…Uncle Griff–”

“–doesn’t know you’re here, I figured that much. It doesn’t answer the question.”

“Well, he decided to stash the wings at your place, and you agreed for whatever reason–”

“Jenny!” Rose’s eyes flashed. The wounded man pulled his blanket up to his chin, and even the old woman shifted in her feverish sleep. Jenny took a step back as Rose strode forward, like they were fencing. “Getting these back to Dr. Griffin safely could be dangerous. Will be, if that city council scumbag is still outside, and I’m pretty sure I see him grinning at me. We’re all in trouble. You most of all. I need to know what’s happening.”

Jenny considered. On the whole, it probably would be a good idea to share this information with a healer. She’d just been embarrassed at how bad she was at sneaking out.

“They say there’s gonna be a glow tonight,” she mumbled.

The old women grunted hard in her sleep, like the great plaza crystal had shone blue in her dreams. The man tried to sit up. “A what? And I’m stuck here? Damn it–”

Rose was at his side in a flash, forcing him back down to the bed. “It’s your right to kill yourself trying to touch the sky,” she snapped, “but not while you’re under my care. If you move now, you’ll reopen your wound. You’re going nowhere.”

“But the treasure!”

“Do I have to sedate you?”

The patient kept struggling feebly. Rose rolled her eyes and produced yet another soaked rag, apparently from another dimension. She clapped it over the small man’s mouth and nose, and after a few more seconds of lolling, he fell back asleep.

“Aunt Rose, you’ve never gotten it, that’s fine,” Jenny said hastily, hoping to prevent Rose from turning the ether rag aginst her next. “But it’s my uncle’s whole life. And everybody’s around here, too, unless they run a shop or an infirmary or something, and usually even then. It would mean everything to him if he could be the first one to land on the Sphere. If some town-square drunk gets lucky tonight, and beats him because he didn’t have his new design finished in time, I don’t know what he’ll do. I don’t know what I’d do.”

“I know one thing he’s already done,” Rose replied. “Had the sense not to drag these wings back home in the dark, and probably at least enough to forbid you from going either.”

Jenny bit her lip. That was, in fact, why she was alone.

Rose wadded her new rag back up and began to pace. “But this isn’t a safe place for you either, especially if that guy goes to get his friends.”

“Yep! Exactly!” Jenny punched the air in front of her. “So I’ll just grab those wings and…”

Rose shook her head. “I’ve decided. I’m keeping them here.”

“But…Uncle Griff…”

“Dr. Griffin will understand,” Rose said in her you need rest tone, the most final one she possessed.

“It’s not safe for you to keep them here either. They’ll descend on you.”

“Not if there’s a glow.”

“What if there isn’t?”

Rose furrowed her brow. “That’s not your concern, Jennifer Hunter Griffin. Get out of here before I decide to take my wrench to you for some practice.”

Jenny nodded. Aunt Rose never would, but they had both made their decisions: this is how it would have to be.

“Fair enough!” she shouted at the top of her lungs. “It would be a pity if somebody were to steal the solid gold wings we’ve just had freshly forged!”

Rose practically teleported to Jenny’s side to clap a hand over her mouth, but the girl was even quicker. She twisted to the side, still free to shout. “They’re not even that heavy, and we have so few weapons to defend them! Ah, what a shame that they would be so easy to melt down into coins on an oven such as you might have at home!”

“Jenny!” Rose hissed through clenched teeth, “are you trying to kill me?”

“I’m saving us! Just trust me!” Staying light on her feet, Jenny raced for the wings. Rose swore foully enough to make the old woman turn over again, and jumped over the wings to grab her long wrench from the table of surgical instruments. Jenny had seen her swing it so dextrously it might as well have been one.

She got a firm grip on one wing with each hand–that would probably be enough to move them–and shot a glance over her shoulder.

Through the gap in the door, she saw the city council man get slugged in the jaw by a man with more scar than skin.

A thrill coursed through her. It was exactly what she’d hoped for. When menaced by one army, the best thing that can show up is a second army.

And a third, and a fourth, and…

All right, she should probably go.

She hauled on the wings. To her further happy surprise, they moved. Their sheer size made them wobble weirdly, and she had to turn them sideways to fit them through the front door, but all things considered they could have been a lot worse.

The vaguely grassy dirt track in front of the infirmary was in chaos. Jenny saw two people who definitely hadn’t been there when she entered rolling through the mud, trading punches. The moment she dragged the wings through the door was the moment of truth, but the more entitled elements of Rust Town society were expecting glittering gold, not Dr. Griffin’s special lightweight bauxite thingy.

She couldn’t see the city council guy, but he yelled when she showed up: “That’s it! That’s the wings!”

But the street was so loud nobody could hear him. Jenny dragged her treasure around a hard right turn, shunting herself and the wings downhill. Only a few paces to the darkness, and then she’d be safe.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Reckoning 4

Karla took stock of the hangar. No birds. Not much wind. No bone dragons. Nothing to suggest she’d heard him wrong.

“Great,” she said after a little too much silence. “Good to know cats have a sense of humor. What are we really going to do?”

“Karla, I’m not joking.” Kio rocked a bit but held firm. “You can go down there, down to the surface, right now. Ten years and you can go whenever you want to.”

“I can’t,” she said, patiently, taking on her explaining-engineering voice, “because we made a promise–”

“I know we did!” Kio cut across her. “Don’t remind me what we promised. I’m asking you to agree to break it.”

All right. Time to confront the possibility that Kio truly was not joking.

“Forget it.” She stood up, making for the workshop elevator. “There’s no reason for me to leave now when you just lost seventy-five percent of your effective body mass. We’ll just retrofit Raven so a cat can pilot her. Make her work more by herself.”

“A cat piloting an ornithopter?” Kio caught her leg. When she looked down, she saw with a pang that tears were springing to the corners of his eyes. “Can you hear yourself? Karla, a cat is not useful for anything. You said yourself we can’t even make the craft work for one human–”

“Hold on!” She kicked her way out of his grip. “You could hear me? You were a cat!”

“You understood me as a bird! And you know it’s true, or you wouldn’t have said it.”

“Wait, you were curling up on my lap. You licked me!”

“I couldn’t stop!” Kio turned beet-red. “It’s an instinct thing. My other body is domesticated. I’m a housecat.

He stood, flinging an arm behind him to point down toward the ocean. “I can’t keep you from the surface anymore–”

“You idiot, you never were!”

“–it could be the only way–”

“I’ve been keeping myself from the surface since this damn bird thing started, since before! A promise takes two people!”

“–so you want to go!” Kio charged her.

“Wait.” Something he’d said had caught in her mind. “What do you mean, the only way?”

“Think about it.” He caught a little of his breath. “We’ve never made anything that could hold together long enough to make it down to the surface. But we know people are capable of flying the other direction.”

“No we don’t. What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you remember? The Harpooneers.”

The fact that she’d managed not to remember staggered Karla. Maybe she had begun believing too much in her own Rokhshan lie, despite intentionally bringing it up as little as possible. “It should be harder, though,” she said to cover her confusion, “shouldn’t it? Isn’t lift harder than controlled falling?”

“You once told me all flying is controlled falling.”

“I know I did! Stop quoting me.”

“Look,” Kio said, and Karla got the sudden feeling that he’d been thinking about this a lot while a cat. “I knew you’d say it doesn’t make sense. But it’s what happened. It’s all we’ve got. We know gliders can make it up, and we know birds can make it down.”

“You can’t expect me to just accept that. There is a real aeronautical mystery here–”

“And you can solve it on the surface.”

That stopped Karla in her tracks. Whatever she’d been readying to say next fell out of her mouth and slipped away into the sky.

He was right. Of course he was. The only place to solve the mystery of how to reach the surface was the surface itself, the place where her mother Mara had launched the greatest skybound expedition in history. She could go to the big island, and from there, investigate the origins of the Harpooneers. She could go about as one openly, drop the Rokhshan façade…

Her eyes grew warm, and a dam burst from behind them. Kio, long since having dried his eyes, looked startled.

Karla managed to get her knees under her before sobs wracked her body harder than a coughing fit. Hot tears dug trenches down her face.

Kio dropped down before her, but she pushed him away. “Don’t,” she babbled. “Don’t make this harder.”

“You don’t want to say–”

It’s NOT goodbye!” Her shout rebounded around the space, climbed up Castle Nashido and shot out into the sky. “You’ve tricked me into admitting that briefly leaving is the only way forward. When we’re both on the surface, you owe me an amazing apology for this.”

“Fair enough.” Kio smiled.

He’s already there, in his head. He thinks I’ll see him again.

So what am I so worried about?

“Don’t forget to manure the vine beds every other day. And the food beds every three.” She advanced toward him, holding a finger out like a sword. “The aqueduct pivot points have been squeaking again, they need oil if it’s going to be able to catch rain from all direction. There’s some weird crunchy grass in the mist garden I haven’t gotten out yet, and the new veggies need washing. And put back that spear gun. There’s just enough metal for a new spear in the workshop.”

“I know all of that,” Kio said. His cool voice was evidence of a switch flipping–he definitely still cared, yet he was suddenly pretending not to.

Karla narrowed his eyes. What was his game?

“I can handle it all,” Kio went on. “I never really needed you, anyway. You always just get in the way.”

“I know what you’re doing,” she shot back. “You’re trying to make me upset so I’ll transform. It’s not gonna work.”

“Yeah, I bet it’s not!” Kio raised his voice into a strangled yell. “Because–you know–you’re so bad at everything! I never wanted you around! I’m really glad you’re leaving!”

“I’m not leaving right away! Unless you keep up with this crap–”

“When else are you going to leave?” Kio shouted like a kitten howling. “Huh? What do you have left to do up here?”

She couldn’t listen to any more of this. He shouldn’t have gone off–should have let her figure out how to transform in her own time. But that wasn’t his style.

They were all they had. They helped each other. He wasn’t going to let her go off alone.

The thought of it gave Karla strength. She wiped her face clean with one furred sleeve. Kio’s fists were balled, his face hardened, and his heart, she could tell from afar, beating as hard as it ever had.

Forget falling. Forget bone dragons. This was his greatest dread.

Yet he’d plunged into it, anyway, for her.

Did people on the surface have people that would risk everything for them? Who cared? She had one.

Since learning she could transform into a raven, Karla had associated the feeling with dread, and terror, and loss. She’d never thought she could turn from happiness. But knowing that Kio would pretend shove her away just to help her was enough to make her feel the now-familiar sensation of her body being squeezed tightly while her brain expanded.

The last thing she saw, before the raven mind compelled her to wing her way into the sky, was Kio attacking the calendar floor with the carving stone, scratching a gouge that seemed like it would never come to an end.

***

An hour later, or two, Kio sat in the library, reading some old book of sky kingdom poems. Four lines each, seven words, some utterly mundane topic allegedly rendered profound…he couldn’t tell. Didn’t care. Just needed to be reading something.

His stomach rumbled, and he smiled, knowing that any moment Karla would burst into the library and remind him to eat.

Kio Rokhshan awoke to the silence, like one does when one has realized one is the only one in the visible world making any noise. Nashido bustled and creaked. It all sounded far away.

It was very quiet. And he was very alone.

***

Karla cut her way through a darkening twilight sky.

Thinking as the raven was as hard as it ever had been, but she had no trouble retaining the concepts she needed.

Surface. Down. They had ruled her mind since she had been old enough to think. Not even the magic of the heartsphere could flush them out.

Down. Surface. They had drifted over the archipelago. Sweeping open before her were the scattered field isles, the crescent-shaped mountain range, the great bustling city of the Big Island. Its crystal was glowing brightly, its skycraft buzzing around the rooftops, surging up toward the clouds Karla pierced through on her descent.

A fire erupted in her heart. She was going there! Fear and excitement and uncertainty mingled together into a fuel to keep the blaze going.

Karla Harpooneer folded her wings, and dove.

That was when a great dark shadow slammed into her from the side, and something sliced feathers off her right wing, and she lost consciousness in the middle of the air.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Reckoning 3

Half an hour of coaxing and voice-following and occasional carrying took them both to the hangar. Karla went there because she always did when she didn’t know how to feel, and she brought cat-Kio because she didn’t know how he felt, and figured he’d appreciate it.

At some point–she’d be damned if she could remember when–they had raised Raven back up into her darkened workshop. But the calendar was still there carved into the floor, sturdy and reassuring. Some gears reflected the sunlight and scattered it.

This room, with its open walls and its stout pillars, always seemed so full of promise when they were about to set out on a test of the ornithopter. When Karla thudded down near the ledge, she regretted that she had come here mostly because she couldn’t figure out what to do with her legs.

Kio curled up on her lap. That was another thing she regretted, but it was just so easy to get him to do it, and it would be pretty hilarious to tell him when he came back.

“This sucks, Kio,” she said, gazing out at the sky as she scratched him between his ears. “I wanted you to be a bird too.”

She almost giggled when he purred, but giggling wasn’t something she felt like doing either.

“I think I figured it out.” Her eyes absently traced a pair of gulls wheeling over each other. “It’s because we went into the Heartsphere, get it? That’s the reason the Rokhshan had ‘don’t go in there’ as their first law. There’s some kind of energy in there that changes you. Fundamentally. And you can’t have a noble house where the lords and ladies turn into lizards or whatever whenever they get upset.”

Kio looked up sharply and sprang out of her lap, chasing some invisible sound. She let him run.

“Because that’s it. You changed when you thought I had died. It happens when there’s nothing else that can happen. And I think it’s easier every time. My second didn’t take as much effort.”

As for you, she thought but didn’t say, the big difference between us is that you spent five more years on this castle than me. Being near the heartsphere bathed you in whatever it was putting out that came from inside it. You got…immune, somehow, and it took more for you to change. It took a lot for me, I’ve had ten years, but another five isn’t nothing.

“This whole time, I’ve been thinking–the moment you get your bird body too, we can fly down to the surface forever and forget all this ornithopter business. But now…we still need Raven. We still have our promise. We’re right back where we started, with a flyer we can’t make work, even for one person.”

Her nose reddened, and her eyes pricked as he wandered back over to her, gazing out at a cloud. She really hoped she wasn’t allergic to cats.

She hoped he was going to change back. What if that was something else that was restricted to landlings?

The caption under the picture had mentioned that cats liked milk, but they never had any milk–it curdled too quickly. She made a slurry of gull and water and managed to convince him to lap it up.

Then she went to work on Raven. Letting a mewling Kio up into the workshop so she could keep an eye on him, she tinkered and tightened and stretched and replaced and oiled with a frenzy she hadn’t felt in months. She felt the old machine-ness taking her over again, the sense that she was building an island for herself while the one she stood on collapsed beneath her feet, and that her life depended on finishing her work just a little bit earlier than everything came crashing down.

The sun sank behind the clouds and she kept working. The stars followed the moon out into the night and she kept working. Kio yowled at her and she stopped working long enough to shoo him to a warm spot under one of the braziers–she didn’t have any trouble translating his cries into what he would have said as a human.

As it turned out, she wasn’t quite right. But his voice and hers did remind her that working to escape her problems wasn’t the greatest idea.

“Liars, the both of you,” she grunted. She was working to eliminate her problems.

Around midnight, an impromptu wind-tunnel test had her convinced that some three-month-old repair had left Raven’s wings imbalanced–the right was heavier than the left. She took the right down to the hangar so she could watch the skies while trying to make it lighter.

Two hours later, she considered that she’d also be fine with making the left wing heavier, should the right prove to be impossible.

The moon scattered silvery light over islands of cloud, conjuring them as ghostly mirrors of the rocky isles below. They made a path of stepping stones to take her far over the horizon, to circle the whole world and come back to step lightly onto the machine deck at Nashido’s aft. Without once setting foot on the surface.

Kio licked at her fingertips. His tongue was sandpapery.

Once upon a time, they had concocted a plan to chart a tall mountain, run the castle aground on it, and work their way down to the surface. This had lasted for months of them attempting to seek out every sufficiently high mountain on the four sea charts in the library, some of which overlapped. At last, they’d had to scrap the idea–every region with mountains high enough to work also boasted weather stormy enough to throw even Nashido off course. They had turned back for the archipelago without ever seeing a mountain higher than the Big Island.

However, right now, Karla saw one looming ahead, so high there was a village level with Nashido, with shepherds and smoke drifting out of chimneys. Which is how she knew she was dreaming.

She woke up with Raven’s wing covering her like a blanket, and a tattooed face looking down at her.

“Hey,” Kio said, almost apologetically. “We have to talk.”

Karla pulled the wing up before realizing it was an awful comforter. She set it gently aside and sat up. “Yeah. We do.”

Words streamed out. “I know I’m always apologizing to you in this room, and that’s weird because I like the hangar but anyway, I…I was a total idiot.”

Kio dropped to a sitting position and held out his hands. “It’s fine. That gas did stuff to you I still can’t figure out. If we hadn’t had the mushrooms…”

“You can’t just blame the gas! It was me, too. I didn’t want to jump, I just wanted to do something. To push back against the memories.”

“We did do something. We got the warmth started again. But that’s–”

“–I feel so stupid–“

“–that’s not what I wanted to talk about!” Kio shouted.

“Right.” Karla folded her arms around her knees. “We should probably discuss the cat thing.”

“That’s kinda it.” Kio studied the sunrise. “I’ve got an idea. You won’t like it.”

Karla had decided from her research that she liked sunsets better. The colors happened all at once, instead of proceeding in an orderly fashion when the sun told them it was all right.

“You have to go,” Kio told her. “You have to become a raven and fly down to the surface without me.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Reckoning 2

Thinking like Karla, that had been the key. What did Karla like? Other than aviation, thunderstorms, pineapple–which she’d had three times in her life–sleeping in, and racing paper boats?

Hydraulics.

She loved working with the aqueducts even when she didn’t need to. Figuring out all the things she could make water do. It was like having another set of hands to help, she always said: water just needed directions, and it would gladly do its duty.

That was what Kio would do. Make an extra set of hands.

Working in the rain disinclined a lot of his kindly thoughts toward water, but at least he wasn’t going to run out of material. The trickier part was gathering what he needed without leaving the ledge.

Luckily, this garden was on the same side of the castle as the clay jug they used as a counterweight for the pulley elevator. By hauling on that rope while kicking off lone seagull adventurers with both feet, he was able to drag the jug within reach.

It was harder to find a way to suspend the spear gun in such a way that gravity could work on it, but he managed this too by cannibalizing the rope the jug had been hanging from. Nashido’s obnoxiously perfect construction made it difficult to find a place to attach the line. Finally, he yanked carrots out of the garden, tied them to both ends of the line, and threw them to the ledge above, and kept throwing them until they lodged on something.

Now he had an empty spear gun hanging from the ceiling, with a jug hanging from its trigger. And a Karla he’d dragged as far out of the rain as he could, still shivering–he couldn’t decide whether to add furs or remove them, since both seemed to make her shake worse.

“Soon,” he told her. “I promise.”

The hard part was over. The garden was irrigated directly from the reservoir, with a pipe on a spigot above his head. They’d shut it before the sky kingdom, a million years ago, having expected rain.

They’d had no choice but to drill the spigot too high into the wall to reach. Kio turned it by hurling a cabbage.

The reservoir was already spilling its rim from the rain. The released water burst out of the valve like it was breathing a sigh of relief. Kio held his breath, hoping he’d positioned it correctly…

…the falling water splashed into the rim of the jug. Kio let out a whoop.

As it turned out, the only thing he’d miscalculated was the load-bearing knots attaching the jug to the gun. The water wasn’t spilling right.

Having shifted them, he stood back in satisfaction. A crowd of gulls gathered, curious about this stoic newcomer.

When the jug filled past a certain mark, its weight jerked the trigger, and the birds scattered, terrified of the missile that wasn’t coming. As they flew off, the water splashed out, leaving the trigger to reset and the jug to fill again.

I’ll call it the Kiobot, he thought, as he picked up Karla under her back and knees and raced for the hatch.

Behind him, the Kiobot snapped. A flock of gulls squawked their way off to the horizon. And the tension in Kio’s gut eased just a little.

He hardly remembered the trip through the heartsphere. It was fitting, in a way, since he hadn’t remembered his first until a few days ago. He knew now, though. He’d broken the first commandment of the Benefactor. And it wasn’t hard to imagine that he’d spent his life cursed because of it.

He took the side exit out of the Inner Citadel, from the room above the burned room. Shuffling quickly through it, keeping Karla from bumping into anything, he thought he saw sunlight glinting off the remains of a chandelier.

The closest room was the one near the top of the sphere, next to the empty hallway complex he never bothered to enter. It held the same four-poster where they’d conferred about their plan to enter the Inner Citadel, which had gone pretty well if you discounted everything that had happened to Karla and most of the things that had happened to him. At least it was warming up again.

He laid her out in the bed, removed most of her furs except the bottom layer so she wouldn’t be too hot, then propped her head on pillows and tucked her into the quilt. Then he rearranged the pillows and shifted the quilt about because it felt like making progress.

Outside, the rain pattered on, making puddles all over the castle erupt with little mountain peaks. Clouds drifted into wisps beyond the towers outside the high bedroom windows. Somewhere below, the Kiobot snapped its trigger again, keeping the mushrooms safe.

It was time for him to get back to the garden. He couldn’t leave the mushrooms to get eaten in the middle of one of its intervals.

Yet something stopped him in the door. He felt suddenly like his eyes were connected to Karla like a ray of energy, and if he broke it, he’d lose her forever. He’d been near her since she collapsed. He wondered if that, all along, had been keeping her alive.

Cautiously, he stepped to her bedside.

“We’re all we have,” he told her. “You promised. Don’t go without me. Not even there. Not that place. Don’t leave me.”

He broke the connection like ripping a bandage off. Had to get back through the heartsphere, had to keep protecting the fungi. Only three left.

They would cure her, not sitting by her side and whispering magic words.

As the rainy evening turned into a starless night, and then a smoky morning, Kio rode up and down the rope lift to the platform–easier to use now that he wasn’t carrying anybody comatose. The sun burst into view all at once as he pressed cool cloth to Karla’s forehead and tried to get her to drink water, spilling most of it. By the time he was back to the garden to untangle a snarl in the Kiobot’s ropes, the clouds were burning away.

Kio’s breath caught to see the ocean glittering below. The thought crossed his mind that one of the worst things about being trapped on a floating castle was that he would have loved life on Nashido had he been able to leave once in a while.

He dozed at some point, not even remembering where he was, bedroom or garden. He dreamed of Karla slipping away, blown on a soft breeze while he fought to change into a bird and follow. He grabbed himself, forcing his own outline into the correct form, but all he created was a human growing smaller and smaller until he vanished altogether.

When he woke up, the mushrooms were ready.

He could tell from the brown spots speckling the caps of the three surviving fungi. They had been a solid white when he went to sleep, but overnight, the sign of maturity the book told him to look for was there. So too was the firmness–the caps gave under his fingers, but only just.

If they were ever going to work as an antidote, they were going to work now.

He pulled all three out carefully by the stalks, and put them in a pocket he had triple-checked would fasten. Then he rode the pulley up the Outer Citadel wall to Karla’s room.

She was on her side when he burst in, clutching sweat-soaked sheets like a lifeline. Her breath came in rattles.

“It’s all right!” He raced to her side and held up the mushrooms. “I’ve brought medicine. You’re gonna be fine.”

The book said to grind up the caps and stalks and strain a cup of hot water through the shreds. Kio almost laughed as he set up the cup and strainer he’d stashed in the room the day he built Kiobot. Karla was finally going to get her cup of tea.

He checked the measurements one more time. Three mushrooms was going to be just enough.

Karla murmured feverish words as Kio smashed the precious fungi with a mortar and pestle. He forced himself to steep the tea for as long as the medical text recommended, flattening the page out on the dresser top and staring at it like a verse of scripture that would keep him sane.

Steam rose from the cup. He tried to prop her up so as not to spill a drop of the precious brew. Even so, some spilled onto the blanket as he helped her drink.

Smoke poured faster from her mouth and nose. “One more sip,” he coaxed her. “Not too fast, it’s hot. Just sips.”

Sip by sip, she drained the entire mug.

He kept holding her, hoping she would smile, open her eyes, tell him she didn’t need the help anymore.

She coughed. And somehow grew heavier. A cold emptiness spreading out from his gut, he laid her back down on the pillows.

Kio staggered back, not even able to look at her. But when he turned to the window, the sight of the ocean, so beautiful earlier, made him nauseous. There was nowhere he could look. Nowhere he could go.

Was this how Karla had felt, standing on that precipice?

She coughed, writhed, and lay still, her breathing just as labored as before. Something was supposed to have changed by now.

He had failed.

He was going to lose her.

The emptiness kept spreading. It didn’t really feel like he’d imagined it would, watching Karla die. Over ten years he had imagined it a lot.

There was no sadness. In fact, there was nothing. Everything that was Kio was being flushed down the drain along with her.

No, there wasn’t sadness. Just a certain sense that he had reached the end of the road, and there was nobody standing there with him.

He thought back along the events that had led them here: the Inner Citadel, the sky kingdom, the bone dragon attacks, all the way back to the conflagration of Year Zero. And he had another vision–not an Inner Citadel flashback nightmare this time, just a very strong memory, of a sort he’d heard described once upon a time.

He was with Karla in the heartsphere, and they were both young, sheltering from the invasion of surface people and the explosion detonated by Kio’s father. “Are you a Rokhshan?” she had asked him.

Kio leapt at her out of the shadows. “Landling! Mistake! Broken! It’s your fault they’re dead!”

Of course, he hadn’t been able to find her. Every time they made brief contact, she scuffled him off again. “Stop it. You can’t even see me.”

“Nashido was supposed to strike you down if you tried to step inside the sphere. How are you still alive?”

“I’m a Rokhshan too, you idiot,” she shot back.

He swung a fist inches from her face and she lurched back. He’d gotten way closer than he’d thought. As his eyes adjusted to the dim green light filtering in, he reared back for another punch.

“My name’s Karla. What’s yours?”

He was already losing energy. She caught his punch in both hands and turned it away.

He folded, falling past her to land face-first on the slope. Karla watched him until he worked his way onto his back.

“I’m Kio,” he told her.

Neither of them said anything for a while. But after a few minutes, or an hour, Kio turned toward her, even though they still couldn’t make out each other’s faces. “Karla?”

“Yeah?”

“We’re alone here, aren’t we?”

“Yeah.”

Back in the bedroom, ten years later, no time at all later, Kio let the heartsphere bear him away.

***

When Karla awoke on drenched sheets, she couldn’t quite tell what time it was. The rays of orange light filtering through the window could have been sunset or sunrise, and having no idea which side of the castle she was on didn’t help.

She felt better than she had any right too. She recalled slipping in and out of fever dreams too disjointed to call memories, accompanied by a certainty that she wasn’t coming back. Suddenly, it was as though she’d just woken up from a nap.

Looking around with her newfound strength, she recognized the room. It was the starboard bedchamber where they’d made plans to assault the Inner Citadel. An empty mug and some cooking utensils laid next to a stack of pages on a dresser by her bed.

It was all Kio’s stuff. But where was Kio? Why wasn’t he at her bedside, waiting for her to wake up?

“He must be mulching. Or cleaning the gutters,” she said to herself, proud that he’d taken to heart her conviction that chores needed to be done even in the face of catastrophe.

Well, she felt good enough to walk. She’d go find him. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed.

And stopped. Something about this room didn’t seem right.

Something was moving, and it wasn’t Kio.

Karla snapped back up to stand on the bed–but her fighting stance relaxed when she saw how small the creature was. It was searching around the floor, sniffing as though looking for buried treasure.

She stared. Its body was a little shorter than her arm, black fur flecked with white spots. She’d seen a picture like this before. A surface animal.

Karla was pretty sure that when she’d gone to sleep, Castle Nashido hadn’t had a cat.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.